U2 - A Sort Of Belfast Homecoming

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Belfast Popmart concert, August 26, 1997


By Dan McGinn

It's 5.40pm and the taxi cab has pulled up outside my house in north Belfast. The sun has disappeared. The wind is blowing and the weathermen are predicting rain.

But as I'm ferried through the streets of the city, I know Belfast couldn't give a toss. Rain or shine - we're here to celebrate. U2 are back in Northern Ireland for the first time in over a decade and we're going to tell them how much we missed them.

As I walk up Royal Avenue, past Belfast City Hall, up Bedford Street and Dublin Road, the crowds thicken.

My Walkman is tuned into BBC Radio Ulster's `Evening Extra' news programme which in between reports of the Irish and British governments' meeting over the peace process and farming news carries regular updates on U2's arrival.

We are told the band were met by about 30 journalists at Belfast International Airport where Bono spoke to them about their excitement at the prospect of playing Ulster again - especially in the wake of the recent IRA ceasefire.

"This is our second home. We've been wanting to play Belfast for such a long time and it is going to be one of the highlights of this tour."

"Belfast audiences are notorious for the reception they give to bands. In fact, Irish audiences are notorious. We have our clapometer out for the Belfast and Dublin shows just to see who's the loudest."

`Evening Extra' presenter Mark Carruthers dissects U2's career with rockjournalist Stuart Bailie as we wisk through Queen's University, skimming the outskirts of the Botanic Gardens and the Stranmillis Road - the heart of the student district.

Some enterprising students and local restaurants have organised parties and barbecues and the dodgy merchandisers are doing a steady business under the nose of the RUC traffic cops.

The crowd has now become a sea of concertgoers converging on the entrance to the Botanic Gardens concert site in tiny residential Ridgeway Street. A crowd of luvvies stand on the roof of the Lyric Theatre (which gave Liam Neeson his first break into acting) for an impromptu U2 party.

Within a matter of seconds, I'm in the concert grounds and make a beeline for the merchandise stall. Yes, TRiSH, I was also at Wembley last Friday and was gobsmacked by the show. My only regret was that I was too lazy to buy a programme and a T-shirt.

It costs #25 and the assistant (God bless her) says thanks to me when I produce a wrinkled #20 note and a #5 note.

"You wouldn't believe how happy we are to see a fiver. Thank you so much, "you absolute sweetheart!"

I pick my spot - stage right by one of the spotlight towers and settle down, hoping the grey blanket of cloud will not burst like it normally does in this city.

Behind me, residents in Ridgeway Street overlooking the concert site from a hill are also holding impromptu garden parties - peering over their garden fences, through open windows and on balconies at the concert site.

The rest of us mere mortals are jealous to the teeth. Bastards, they get the concert for free and if this is the first of many concerts at this site, they'll have the most desired properties in Belfast.

I mean, just think of it - U2 playing in your back garden. That giant arch, a view of the huge screen, the wall of sound - all between your garden hut and the fence.

Ash come on around 7pm - local boys made good from Downpatrick (and a new guitarist - a girl called Shauna). They swoop around the stage like a reminder of early U2 playing `The Girl From Mars,' `Goldfinger,' `Oh Yeah' and "the one that was used in the Heineken ad" as they call it.

Howie B spins discs, trip hop style - throwing in some unexpected tunes `Ob La Di, Ob La Dah', The Verve's `Bittersweet Symphony' and 1997 Eurovision Song Contest winners, Katrina and the Waves' old hit `Walking On Sunshine'.

A quick fix of Larry and Adam's reworking of `The Theme From Mission Impossible' and Howie B segues (horrible word) into `POP Music'.

The crowd erupts as the screen lights up with various PopMart logos and eventually the image of our four heroes making their way through the Belfast crowd.

The Edge has his `I Know This Is Camp But I'm Having A Blast' look about him, Adam is his usual cool self dressed someone in a nuclear power plant and Larry has his trademark `Don't Fuck With Me' frown.

Bono shadowboxes like a demented Barry McGuigan in his blue robe. The party has begun.

The set list for Belfast (Tuesday, August 26) was as follows:

1. POP Music: As in Wembley on Friday, a triumphant entrance by the band

2. MOFO: A breathtaking fusion of distorted image, colour and sound

3. I Will Follow: Belfast erupts. This is a U2 song we remember when they played the McMordie (now Mandela) Hall in Queen's University Students' Union

4. Gone: The Edge's guitar oozes anguish. There is something desperately defiant about this live version of the song. But the first few lines could almost be U2's apology to Belfast fans for not having played there in over a decade. `You get to feel so guilty/you get so much for so little, then you find that feeling just won't go away. You're holding onto every thing so tightly/till there's nothing left for you anyway...' Extremely poignant. We were up with the sun and weren't coming down..

5. Even Better Than The Real Thing: A real crowd pleaser. Bono adds a verse of Frankie Goes To Hollywood's `Two Tribes' (very appropriate given where the band is playing). His first words to the crowd as the song starts is the chant "Belfast! Belfast! Belfast! We'll kiss your ass!"

6. Last Night On Earth: The shopping cartoon holds the Belfast audience spellbound. U2 clearly has the audience in the palm of its hand.

7. Until The End of the World: A really thumping version. It strikes me how much clearer U2 sound tonight in an open park venue than at Wembley Stadium. I then realise the lights piercing the Belfast sky two miles up into the air and it seems to have done the trick. The grey bank of cloud has broken up. The crowd goes wild when a light aircraft flies through the centre of wall of light.

8. New Year's Day: Another crowd pleaser. Edge's keyboard sounds melancholic.

9. Pride (In The Name of Love): There's something very moving about this version tonight. Perhaps, it is because Martin Luther King is a symbol of inspiration for those who have struggled for peace and equality not just in the US but in Northern Ireland. The song just reaches to us....

10. I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For: Bono, in his intro, declares: "What a night! Thanks, Belfast, for letting us play this city atsuch short notice when it looked like we couldn't play our own. Funny old world, isn't it?" The crowd are really sucked into the song, prompting Bono and the Edge to lead into Ben E. King's `Stand By Me'.

11. All I Want Is You: As in Wembley, the response to this version is ecstatic. What's happening? Is that a lump in my throat?

12. Straing at the Sun: TRiSH is right in her Wembley reviews about Bono's guitar playing. The harmony works well too. As they make their way to the mikes, Bono declares: "Highly appropriate, isn't it, that we brought a lemon to the Botanic Gardens in Belfast, don't you think?"

13. The Edge's Karaoke - The guitarist gets the biggest laugh of the night. "This is not a rebel song. It's an Elvis song. I want to sing this one for Ian (Paisley), David (Trimble), Gerry (Adams), John (Hume), Mo (Mowlam) and Tony (Blair)." He launches into a spirited rendition of `Suspicious Minds' as in Wembley, last Friday (proof that Elvis isn't dead, he's just pretending to be Irish). Never was a song more uncannily accurate for our politicians in Northern Ireland...

14. MIAMI! : Bono gets to pout and preen in his Fidel Castro gear. He plucks two stunning blondes from the audience, telling them after lighting their Havana cigars: "Sorry girls, gotta go back to work!"

15. Bullet the Blue Sky : Segues (there's that horrible word again) well into the Joshua Tree song. We have the West Side Story/America bit too!

16. Please: Undoubtedly the show stopping moment in the Belfast gig. Bono introduces the song quite simply. No lecture, just "Please stop the fighting. You know what this song is about..." The song is charged with emotion from Bono's impassioned singing, The Edge's guitar wailing with pain and Larry's pounding drums. There is a taste of `Sunday Bloody Sunday' in The Edge, Adam and Larry's playing and `In the Name of the Father' in Bono's singing. The green blocks on the screen marching towards and eventually devouring the orange are all the more affecting, given the site on which this conert is being held - the Ormeau embankment where nationalist and unionist, green and orange, Catholic and Protestant nearly came to blows during the 12th of July marching controversy prior to the IRA ceasefire. In his roll call of months, Bono gets fixated on September - the date when all-party talks involving Sinn Fein (the IRA's political wing) will take place for the first time. Please Northern Ireland, get up off your knees....

17. Where the Streets Have No Name: A rousing version. We sang our hearts out as we did at Wembley. The Underworld/`Born Slippy'-style chant of the lines from `The Playboy Mansion' brings the first part of the show to a thrilling climax.

18. Lemon (The Perfecto Mix): Having seen the tour at Wembley, I wondered if the glitterball lemon effect would work in a park. I was about to be (gladly) proved wrong....

19. Discotheque/Black Betty: The spaceship cartoon, followed by the band's spectacular re-emergence from the glitterball lemon simply astounds the Belfast crowd who whoop along with delight. The song is rollicking good fun.

20. If You Wear That Velvet Dress: I remember being slightly disappointed by this at Wembley but tonight, even if the moon wasn't shining clealry, Bono's voice was.

21. Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me: Camp. Sleazy. Schlocky. There's millions of adjectives to describe this. I notice halfway through the song how Bono has developed a Tom Jones style wiggle of his hand as he sings. The transformation to Las Vegas casino singer is almost complete....

22. Mysterious Ways: At last, Bono and the Edge are giving as much attention as possible to us stage right. As he launches into the song, the lead singer also pays tribute to "the good people who live in the houses surrounding Botanic Gardens for their generosity in allowing us to play here tonight". A crackingly good version. God, I'm almost tiring of praising them.....

23. One/Unchained Melody: Bono heralds the end of the concert with this emotional parting shot to the Belfast crowd. I don't think I've heard a better live version of this song or its accompanying burst of the Righteous Brothers' `Unchained Melody'. In his intro, Bono tells us: "You know, to be one is a great thing but to respect differences may be even greater, don't you think?"

For one night, 40,000 people in Northern Ireland were happy to come together and acknowedge that we "are one but not the same". It was quite simply a magical evening - a definite highlight of the PopMart tour for the band and fans alike.

We believed Bono when he said: "Good night, Belfast. We'll never forget tonight."

And you know what? I reckon, it's a night Belfast is unlikely to forget either......

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on August 26, 1997 4:31 AM.

Wembley Popmart concert was the previous entry in this blog.

Leeds Popmart concert is the next entry in this blog.

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